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Fruit at the Heart of a Healthy Diet
As temperatures rise, we crave foods that are lighter, cleaner on the palate and impart energy needed for our outdoor pursuits.
With supermarket produce departments and farmers markets at their most colorful and alluring right now, there is no better time to honor the needs of our taste buds and the rest of our bodies with in-season fruits that reconcile our desire for flavor with our bodies’ needs for vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants and fiber.
Chef, certified dietician and nutritionist Gina Keatley (whose attractive menus and ideas have been showcased on the Food Network, ABC, Fox Good Day New York and Bravo’s Top Chef) offers a quick primer for in-season fruits known for healthy, tasty choices.
Her choices: Cantaloupe is packed with folate, potassium, beta-carotene and lutein. Kiwis are loaded with vitamins E, A and C, and also contain a large amount of fiber. Strawberries serve up abundant vitamin C, iron, folic acid and antioxidants while tomatoes offer hearty doses of lycopene, lutein, vitamin C, potassium, folate and fiber.
While avocados should be eaten in moderation because of their fat content, Keatley notes that they are rich in fiber, folic acid and potassium as well as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats that protect the heart and reduce blood cholesterol.
Nutritionist and author Janet Brill of Valley Forge, Pa., is a big berry fan, which is especially fitting given her involvement in the “Go Red” campaign that raises awareness and funds to combat heart disease in women.
The nutritionist and fitness expert refers to several studies that show how going red in terms of fruit intake can improve one’s ability to take charge of heart health.
Brill details that “the presence of phytochemicals found in edible plants” — phytochemicals often impart flavor and color to fruits and plants — “plays a major role in preventing, halting and reversing the process of atherosclerosis,” the build-up of fatty deposits in arteries.
She elaborates: “Polyphenols are the largest and most biologically active group of phytochemicals,” and they “carry extraordinarily salutary effects, especially for the heart. Plants produce polyphenols to protect themselves against the elements such as UV light damage and invasion by bacteria, fungi and viruses.”
Flavonoids, a major class of polyphenols, in turn, have a positive effect on one’s arteries. Brill also points to the results of Nurses’ Health Study II (published earlier this year in the medical journal Circulation), which found that eating three or more servings of blueberries and strawberries each week may help reduce a woman’s risk of heart attack by an astounding 32 percent.
What is all the more remarkable, given the popularity of strawberries in this country, is that most Americans don’t get nearly enough of these beneficial chemicals in their diets.
“Fruit offers a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals, and in addition to berries, my recommendation is to include a variety of fruits throughout the day,” continues Brill.
“We often say to eat from the rainbow of colors, including white fruits, too.”
It’s all there in the research: “Studies have shown health benefits from white-flesh fruits such as apples, pears and bananas. Other health benefits include growth and repair of body tissue, speeding up of wound healing, healthier teeth and gums, and helping the body form red blood cells and reduce risk of birth defects.”
There will always be people in the crowd who resist the allure of fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables, even when they know what’s truly good for them. Chicago-area registered dietician Toby Smithson (who is also a certified diabetes educator and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) peels off some common-sense rules in elevating one’s intake of fruits and vegetables.
“Purchase fruits that are in season so you will get the best flavor and the best price,” Smithson suggests. “However, be aware that fresh fruits are not always the richest in nutrients because of the lag time from farm to your table through transportation.
“This is a big reason why farmers markets are becoming the produce source of choice for many consumers, offering fresher products brought to the market stand straight from being picked from the field.”